Google Searches for Its Voice

November 13, 2017
Lisa Eadicicco adapted by TFK editors
CODY PICKENS FOR TIME

A group of writers is huddled around a whiteboard. It’s August, but the team is trying to figure out what users might ask Google Assistant on Halloween. The board is covered with scrawled ideas. One stands out. “People did not like ‘smell my feet’ last year,” Ryan Germick says, laughing.

Emma Coats is a coworker. She chimes in to explain. “It was trick or treat, and one response was ‘smell my feet.’” People gave it a thumbs-down, she says.

ERIC RISBERG—AP; ILLUSTRATION BY DREW WILLIS

Germick has spent the afternoon in brainstorming meetings like this one. It is part of his job. He is principal personality designer for Google Assistant. The device is a voice-activated helper. It can be used on smartphones. It can also be used with Google Home’s smart speaker. At Halloween, will people search for costume ideas? Will they want to hear jokes? There is a key to answering these kinds of questions. The trick is to not think of Google as just a place to find information. Instead, users should think of it as a dynamic character. “At the very simplest level, it’s ‘Can I just talk to Google like I’m talking to you right now?’” Google’s Lilian Rincon says. That may sound easy. But the goal is hard to achieve.

The Future of Tech

This year, around 60 million Americans will use Assistant or another voice-activated helper at least once a month. This information comes from the research company eMarketer. Many experts think voice technology is the next big shift in how humans use machines. This will be a “completely different level of interaction,” says Oren Etzioni. He heads the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. It is in Seattle, Washington.

ERIC RISBERG—AP; ILLUSTRATION BY DREW WILLIS

Germick says assistants have to be more than just question-and-answer machines. “We want you to be able to connect with this character,” he says.

Making that character seem real is the job of Google’s personality team. Team member Emma Coats has experience bringing characters to life. Coats worked for Pixar Animation Studios on such movies as Monsters University, Brave, and Inside Out. She and Germick get inspiration from improv, or improvisational comedy. Improv dialogue builds on previous lines. This method is know as “yes and.”

ERIC RISBERG—AP; ILLUSTRATION BY DREW WILLIS

Here is how this works. If you ask Assistant about its favorite flavor of ice cream, “[It] wouldn’t say, ‘I do not eat ice cream. I do not have a body,’” Germick explains. Instead, the Google team comes up with general answers. They want the answers to encourage the user to keep talking. For example, Google Assistant may answer the ice-cream question like this: “You can’t go wrong with Neapolitan: It’s got something for everyone.”

Challenges Ahead

Google Assistant still has a hard time with some basics of conversation. It has trouble responding to requests that are asked in different phrases from those it is programmed to understand. Google is still building tools for knowing what a user wants. It is also working on tools for knowing how a user feels.

ERIC RISBERG—AP; ILLUSTRATION BY DREW WILLIS

In the future, Google hopes to better understand users based on how they talk to Assistant. “We’re not totally there yet,” says Germick. “But we’d [hope] to understand: ‘Is this a user that likes to joke around more, or is this a user that’s more about business?’ The holy grail to me is that we can really understand human language to a point where almost anything I can say will be understood.”

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